Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Failure is Not an Option

2010 is drawing to an end amongst a flurry of activities in the Health IT field. In a few short days 2011, the year of the Meaningful Use, will be upon us and the stimulus clocks will start ticking furiously. In addition to the yearlong visionary activities from ONC, December 2010 brought us two landmark opinions on the future of medical informatics. The first report, from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), recommended the creation of a brand new extensible universal health language, along with accelerated and increased government spending on Health IT. Exact dollar amounts were not specified. The second report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is a preliminary summary of a three-part workshop conducted by the Roundtable on Value & Science-Driven Health Care with support from ONC, and titled “Digital Infrastructure for the Learning Health System: The Foundation for Continuous Improvement in Health and Health Care”. The IOM report, which incorporates the PCAST recommendations by reference, is breath taking in its vision of an Ultra-Large-System (ULS) consisting of a smart health grid spanning the globe, collecting and exchanging clinical (and non-clinical) data in real-time. Similar to PCAST, the IOM report focuses on the massive research opportunities inherent in such global infrastructure, and like the PCAST report, the IOM summary makes no attempt to estimate costs.

Make no mistake, the IOM vision of a Global Health Grid is equal in magnitude to John Kennedy’s quest for “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” and may prove to be infinitely more beneficial to humanity than the Apollo missions were. However, right now, Houston, we’ve had a problem here:
  1. The nation spent upwards of $2.5 trillion on medical services this year
  2. Over 58 million Americans are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid 
  3. Over 46 million Americans are old enough to qualify for Medicare 
  4. Another 50 million residents are without any health insurance
  5. The unemployment rate is at 9.8% with an additional 7.2% underemployed
  6. This year’s federal deficit is over $1.3 trillion and the national debt is at $13.9 trillion
In all fairness, the recent Federal investments in Health IT were spurred by the HITECH Act, which was a part of the ARRA, a recession stimulus bill aimed at injecting money into an ailing economy and creating jobs, while improving national infrastructure. It was not explicitly intended to reduce health care costs or improve access and affordability (that came later with PPACA). Perhaps adding an EHR to every doctor’s office was viewed as the first step towards building the Learning Health System. However, somewhere along the road to fame EHRs were magically endowed with powers to provide patients “with improved quality and safety, more efficient care and better outcomes”. Perhaps these claims came from EHR vendors’ glossy marketing collateral, or perhaps it was just wishful thinking, or perhaps this was a forward looking statement for the fully operational grid of a Learning Health System, or maybe this is just incorrect use of terminology. Health IT is much more than EHRs and Health IT can indeed help improve efficiency, i.e. cut costs, in several ways.

Administrative Simplifications

Section 1104 of the PPACA contains a roadmap for administrative simplifications “to reduce the clerical burden on patients, health care providers, and health plans”. Eligibility transactions must be standardized and deployed by 2012, electronic payments by 2014 and claims, certifications and authorizations by 2016. Physicians spend about 14% of revenue on billing and insurance related functions, while hospitals spend 7% - 11% and health plans spend around 8%, not to mention the aggravation involved. Why do we have to wait 6 years before this particularly wasteful activity is completely addressed? If there is a place where health care can learn from other industries, this is the one. Both the banking and retail industries have solved this problem many years ago. It is trivial to imagine swiping a magnetic card at the doctor’s office to verify eligibility, obtain authorization, and exact dollar amounts for patient responsibility, while initiating a real time payment transaction from insurer to provider. The complexities of a thousand different plans can be easily accommodated by computer algorithms and the technology is available in every supermarket and every gas station. For all those joining Congress in 2011 with the intent of altering PPACA, could we alter Section 1104 and shorten the timeline by a few years?


The National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association estimates the costs of health care fraud to be 3% to 10% of expenditures. Despite all the publicity, credit card fraud is estimated to cost 7 cents per each $100 in transactions, or 0.07%, with issue resolution times estimated at 21 hours. This is yet another lesson health care can learn from the financial industry. Granted, purchase patterns in health care are different than the market at large, so the anti-fraud algorithms will need to be tweaked and specialized. Computers are very good at this and from watching the President’s bi-partisan meeting on health care reform last year, I thought this is one area where everybody agrees that something needs to be done. There is nothing tangible in PPACA regarding the use of Health IT for fraud reduction.

Duplication of Tests

If you prescribe electronically through Surescripts, you can see a patient’s medications list courtesy of the PBM. PBMs and insurers know exactly what medications they paid for. They also know exactly what procedures, tests and visits they paid for, and who performed them. Would it be a huge stretch of imagination to envision a display of the last 6 months of tests paid by the insurer every time you attempt to order a test? No, insurers don’t have the results, but if you saw that the patient had an MRI last week, would you order another one today? Or would you call the facility for a copy? When you prescribe electronically, the PBM insists on showing you the formulary and drug price for the individual patient. Why not show you prices for the tests you are about to order, and help you and the patient choose lower priced facilities, just like they steer folks to prescribe generics? This has nothing to do with clinical decision support or changing the way medicine is practiced. These are examples of very simple, common-sense, immediate solutions for reigning in costs without disturbing quality of care.

The Global Learning Health System presents a compelling vision. I wish that the President would commission the necessary budget estimations, go before Congress and in a JFK style oration request appropriations for defeating Cancer (or some other scary thing), appropriations which will include funding for the Learning Health System global grid. It is possible that if such Learning Health System existed today, or could be quickly deployed, it would provide solutions for most health care problems we currently have. However, it is pretty clear that such a system will take many years and many billions of dollars to build. In the meantime we have an immediate problem, which requires an immediate solution with immediately available tools, and no, failure is still not an option.


  1. This global grid of health information may also be a useful tool with respect to tracking global pandemics and local epidemics, and could give governments and global organizations a head start on ramping up vaccination production. Reading this, it's surprising to see that a push for more global cooperation/health monitoring didn't emerge from the swine flu scare. You would think this is the type of scary moment that supporters of increased investment in health IT would be all over.

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